Thursday, January 06, 2011

Somerset Maugham & I

Tibor R. Machan

My most enjoyable and rewarding reading time has been with W. Somerset Maugham. Even the works that annoy me are a pleasure to read, not to mention the many very entertaining books, short stories and essays he has penned that are dear to me.

What it is about Maugham I am not entirely sure--I pretty much just bathe in the enjoyment without doing much analysis of why it happens. But there are a couple of things about his writing that agree with me thoroughly.

One is that nearly every sentence is superbly crafted so it is suitable for those like me who are slow readers. Even if I get to read but a couple of pages just before falling asleep or being called by the dentists or doctor after waiting for the exam, sentence after sentence appeals to me. Sometimes I want to shout out my praise for him but, sadly, he has been dead for several decades now.

Some of his books contain a good collection of brief observations but they are nearly always keen ones. Here is one where he chimes in with something in my own field of philosophy:

“Looking for the special function of man Aristotle decided that since he shares growth with the plants and perception with the beasts, and alone has a rational element, his function is the activity of the soul. From this he concluded, not as you would have thought sensible, that man should cultivate the three forms of activity which he as­cribes to him, but that he should pursue only that which is especial to him. Philosophers and moralists have looked at the body with misgivings. They have pointed out that its satisfactions are brief. But a pleasure is nonetheless a pleasure because it does not please forever.” [The Summing Up (Pocket Books, 1967), pp. 35-6]

Right on, I say, even though the author isn’t some highfalutin Aristotle scholar. And there is this pithy comment I tucked away in my growing collection of worthy quotes:

"... finally science had not fulfilled the promises which the unwise expected, and, dissatisfied at not receiving answers to questions that science never pretended to answer, many threw themselves into the arms of the Church."

And there is this bitty from his rare but poignant political observations:

"If a nation or an individual values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony is that if it is comfort or money it values more, it will lose that too."

Cannot argue with that--both reason (theory) and experience (history) bear it out.

OK, so I have given just a couple of samples from the vast writing of W. Somerset Maugham to show how appealing he can be. The first of his novels I read was titled Theater and was only a couple of years ago made into a movie starring Annette Bening, Being Julia. His most famous novel, Of Human Bondage--also made into film maybe more than once, directed by John Cromwell and starring Leslie Howard, Bette Davis and Kay Johnson--didn’t sit well with me because its subject matter was a pathetic love affair that pretty much mirrored my own pathetic love affair of the time. But there were many other works, among them the novella, Up At The Villa which was also made into a film by that name, directed by Philip Haas and starting Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn and Anne Bancroft.

I am always conscious of the fact that English is my third language, learned just at the end of my adolescence, and so I am partial to writers who not only entertain me, present fascination or intrigue, but do it impeccably and there-through teach me a thing or two. And Maugham has been the number one example of such writing to me and I am still reading his works--the latest is one of his travel books, full of gems, titled The Gentleman in the Parlor: A Record of a Journey from Rangoon to Haiphong (Armchair Traveler Series).

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

How to Use the Constitution

Tibor R. Machan

Many in the just seated House of Representatives have been clamoring for a return to the Constitution. This is what appears to underlie to planned challenge to Obama care, the massive piece of legislation that President Obama has been eager to make a part of the law of the land, legislation that contains provisions that toe many in the new House appear to be in violation of the U. S. Constitution. In particular, objections have been raised against forcing citizens to buy insurance, something that clearly goes against several principles associated with the American political tradition, such as freedom of contract, freedom of trade, etc. Some of these principles have found a way into the Constitution but it isn’t always crystal clear just where in the Constitution they appear--the fifth, the fourth, the ninth, the first or which amendment or which ruling that contains precedents should constitutional watchdogs rely as they to issue the proclamation: “Unconstitutional.”

The plain fact of the matter is that while the U. S. Constitution--specifically the Bill of Rights--contains some very laudable provisions, all of them require a fairly nuanced interpretation and application to contemporary issues (such as government coercing people buy health insurance). While for some citizens this is all a piece of cake, no problem at all, for others it isn’t a slam dunk by a long shot. That’s because these folks focus on the fact that the principles incorporated in the Bill of Rights are stated in terms that had a slightly different meaning back when the Constitution was ratified from how we understand them today.

Such development in the meaning of terms is often used as an excuse for evading constitutional principles but it could also be legitimate. Terms do change their meaning, more or less drastically or radically, even in the physical science--the term “atom” as used today doesn’t mean what it had been used to mean a hundred years ago. The more people involved in the study of those matters for which such terms were coined come to know--the more information comes to light about the surrounding facts--the more likely some alteration of meaning is probable.

Now this doesn’t mean the ridiculous idea that nothing is constant in the world, nothing stands still, nothing is stable and dependable, only that one needs to be sure what is and what isn’t. Some constitutional scholarship would track just such developments--have the crucial terms of the constitution kept the meaning they had back at the time of ratification or did they change a bit or a lot? The changes wouldn’t be arbitrary, with the result that anything goes--which is the result some of the avid skeptics about the Constitution would try to make us all believe. They hold to the doctrine originally ascribed to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus who held that everything is always in flux--he is famously held to have said “You cannot step into the same river twice” because, well, the river is always changing. And if all of reality were like the river, we could never count on anything to be stable or solid, certainly not principles that are supposed to govern human community life.

But the American Founders and Framers disagreed and had spelled out some--few?--principles that do apply to human community life precisely because it is, after all, human communities that are at issue, not communities of ants or birds or cows. And these beings, human ones, are not all that changeable even over the time span of centuries. We know this from anthropology, archeology, history, philology, and other disciplines that study various aspects of humanity’s past and make pretty good progress understanding them.

So there could well be certain invariable principles, ones that need to be considered in dealing with or governing people and once these make it into a constitution, that document could come in very handy in figuring out public policies and plans. But none of this would be happening automatically, not certainly from simply reading the Constitution, not by a long shot. Honest constitutional study and understanding would be needed. Only then would the imperative to pay heed to the Constitution come to something valuable, important.

The reason that objecting to Obama care would appear to be not just constitutionally misguided but a misguided way of dealing with citizens is that people are the kind of beings in the world who may not be pushed around by other people--they must have their sovereignty or rights to life and liberty well respected and protected. Unfortunately this idea is so often and widely violated around the globe and, of course, throughout human history, that it is difficult for anyone to be loyal to it.

Many people are bent on pushing other people around--always, of course, for lofty purposes--and so bringing up a constitutional objection to their doing so would be annoying for them, even undermine their philosophy of life and their aspirations to be influential in the world. So they will then commit to the philosophy of Heraclitus, a philosophy that gives them carte blanche about how to interpret the U. S. Constitution or any other document containing principles by which communities must be governed. It’s a living document, you see, which can be taken to mean whatever one wants it to me, pragmatically and not according to common reason.

Yes, it is good to refer to the Constitution but it is even more important to keep in mind the underlying philosophical clashes and to make sure which side is right.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Reexamining Democracy

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last several decades of American political life the idea of liberty has taken a back seat to that of democracy. Liberty involves human beings governing themselves, being sovereign citizens, while democracy is a method by which decisions are reached within groups. In a just society it is liberty that is primary – the entire point of law is to secure liberty for everyone, to make sure that the rights of individuals to their lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness is protected from any human agent bent on violating them. Democracy is but a byproduct of liberty. Because we are all supposed to be free to govern ourselves, whenever some issue of public policy faces the citizenry, they are all entitled to take part. Democratic government rests, in a free society, on the right of every individual to take whatever actions are needed to influence public policy.

Because freedom or liberty is primary, the scope of public policy and, thus, of democracy in a just society is strictly limited. The reason is that free men and women may not be intruded on even if a majority of their fellows would decide to do so. If one is free, which means a self-governing person, then even the majority of ones fellows lacks the authority to take over ones governance without ones consent. This is what the US Declaration of Independence means when it mentions that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. In a just society no one loses his or her authority for self-government without giving it up as a matter of choice. No one gets to operate on you, no matter how wise and competent, without your giving your consent, and the same is true, in a just system, about imposing duties and obligations on people. They must agree to this. If they do not, they aren't to be ordered about at all. The only apparent exception is when it comes to laws that protect everyone’s rights. One may indeed be ordered not to kill, rob, rape, burglarize, and assault other persons, even if one fails to consent to this. And when the legal authorities do this job of protecting individual rights, they may order one to abstain from all such aggressive actions.

However, this doesn't actually involve intruding on people, only being duly authorized, via the consent of the governed, to protect everyone from intrusions. It is along these lines that the idea of limited government – or legal authority – arises: it may only act to protect rights, to impose the laws that achieve that goal, nothing more. Again, as the Declaration of Independence notes, it is to secure our rights that governments are instituted, not for any other purpose. Of course, this idea of limited government hardly figures into considerations of public policy in the USA or elsewhere. We have never actually confined government to this clearly limited, just purpose. It has always gone beyond that and today its scope is nearly totalitarian (albeit somewhat “permissive”), the very opposite of being limited. But there is no doubt that even though liberty has been nearly forgotten as an ideal of just government in America as well as elsewhere, democracy does remain something of an operational ideal. In this way liberty has been curtailed tremendously, mainly to the minor sphere of everyone having a right to take part in public decision-making. Whereas the original classical liberal idea is that we are free in all realms and democracy concerns mainly who will administer a system of laws that are required to protect our liberty, the corrupt version of this idea is that democracy addresses everything in our lives and the only liberty we have left is to take part in the decision-making about whatever is taken to be a so called “public” matter.

One way this is clearly evident is how many of the top universities in the USA construe public administration to be a topic having to do primarily with the way democracy works. Indeed, after the demise of the Soviet Union, even though the major issue should have been the establishment and maintenance of a regime of individual liberty, the experts in academe who write and teach the rest of the world about public administration are nearly all focused on democracy, not on liberty.

For example, the courses at America’s premier public administration graduate school, the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, are mainly focused on problems of democracy. At this institution nearly 40 percent of the students attending come from 75 foreign countries, many of them from those that used to be under Soviet rule, and what they focus on in nearly all their courses is democracy, not liberty. Assignments in these courses tend all to raise problems about implementing democratic governance and leave the issue of how individual liberty should be secured as practically irrelevant. Or, to put it more precisely, the liberty, or human right, that is of interest in most of these courses is the liberty to take part in democratic decision-making. (“Human rights” has come to refer in most of these course and their texts mainly to the right to vote and to take part in the political process!)

Yes, of course, that is a bit of genuine liberty that many of the people of the world have never enjoyed, so for them it is a significant matter, to be sure. But it is clearly not the liberty that the Declaration of Independence mentions when it affirms that all of us are equal in having unalienable rights to our lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness. The Declaration speaks of a very wide scope of individual liberty, while the premier public administration school of America teaches, at least by implication, that the only liberty of any importance is the liberty to take part in public policy determination.

This, I submit, is a travesty. Once democracy is treated as the premier public value, with individual liberty cast to the side except as far as the citizenry’s freedom to take part in democratic decision-making, the scope of government is no longer limited in principle or in practice. Nearly anything can become a public policy issue, so long as some measure of democracy is involved in reaching decisions about it. And that, in fact, turns out to be a serious threat to democracy itself. Because when democracy trumps liberty, democracy can destroy itself, and the law could permit the democratically reached destruction of democracy itself!

That is just what happened in the Weimar Republic, where a democratic election put Hitler in power and destroyed democracy. If you ever wonder why it is that public forums, including the Sunday TV magazine programs, the Op Ed pages of most newspapers, the feature articles of most magazines do not discuss human liberty but fret mostly about democracy, this is the reason: the major educational institutions tend not to care about liberty at all and have substituted a very limited version of it, namely, democracy, as their primary concern. Once that is accomplished, individual liberty becomes defenseless.

Indeed, democracy is just as capable of being totalitarian as is a dictatorship, only with democracy it seems less clearly unjust, given that this little bit of liberty is still in tact, namely, to take part in the vote. (A little of this has come to be discussed recently on some programs because of Harvard educated Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria’s recent book, The Future of Freedom [W. W. Norton, 2003], which is subtitled “illiberal democracy at home and abroad.” Sadly Zakaria seems to have abandoned his concerns about the matter and is now mostly taking part in discussions about how the country ought to be managed, like a firm.) True enough, democratic totalitarianism appears more benign than a system under the direction of a tyrant but, as In Venezuela, unrestrained democracy can give rise to the most belligerent version of dictatorship since Hitler’s Third Reich. The proper approach to governance is to make all of it focus primarily on protecting the rights of the citizens to their lives, liberty and property. This extension of the idea of the body or security guard is the best model for how government should work and how their work should be appraised. Free men and women require this so as to live their lives by their own judgment and in voluntary cooperation with their fellow citizens instead of being regimented by some group of “leaders” who view themselves as knowledgeable about the public interest.

In caring about democracy mainly or only, the more robust liberty that everyone is entitled to is neglected. The result is not all that different from how feudal orders behave.